Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Tag: comedy

Sex Lives of the Potato Men

by Ben Diamond

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 17.18.04

“Vegas and Crook are a sleazy dream-team and brilliantly cast as the soft-core spud men… After several pints and a curry it could be the lads’ film of the year.”

-Mark Adams, The Sunday Mirror, 22nd February 2004

“Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival”

-Extract from Mark Adams’s Twitter bio

Where were you when you first watched Sex Lives of the Potato Men?

(Subtext: I am ashamed that the review of this film exists alongside my review of Son of Saul).

You can’t spend your life watching great films.

Sometimes you have to ground yourself.  Remind yourself why it is that great films are great.  Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?  If you went to see something as good as Barton Fink every week at North Finchley Vue then the spectacle would fail to astound after a while.

And so it was that I found myself in a living room in Sunderland watching Sex Lives of the Potato Men.

I remember seeing posters for this on buses when it came out.  I remember seeing Mackenzie Crook up on that poster, and the Office connection made me want to see it.  But unfortunately I was 13 years old for most of 2004.  Now I’m a big boy – 25 years old – so I allowed myself the indulgence of checking out a film that was notoriously bad.  There was a special aura of badness surrounding this film, folkloric tales of a 0% rating on RottenTomatoes, outrage at the million pounds of public funds from the UK Film Council used to make this film.

I didn’t find it to be as nasty and misogynistic as some critics made out.  I didn’t even find it so terrible, so awful, such a heinous crime of cinematic attrition.  I even laughed a few times.  Yes, it’s abysmal.  But so is loads of stuff.  It held my attention more than recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, which tried to occupy the centre ground between thriller and procedural and ended up being neither, essentially a montage of interviews with victims of abuse masquerading as a testament to the selfless heroics of investigative journalism.  The Wire Season 5 it weren’t.

Four thoughts on Sex Lives of the Potato Men, or as it was called in France, La Vie de l’Homme de Pomme de Terre.

  1. Sometimes it’s easier to write about a bad film than a good film.
  2. Someone had to write this film.  It came out of someone’s head.  I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the psychotherapy sessions this bloke has been to.  And if he hasn’t, he really needs a few sessions.  Someone had to think of the idea that a man used to spread strawberry jam on his other half’s pudenda before he performed cunnilingus.  Someone then had to think of the idea that he missed the taste of such an experience so much that he had to start eating strawberry jam and fish-paste sandwiches to replicate the taste.  It’s like Proust’s madeleines but with a subtle hint of fanny juice.  Either the man who wrote this is a genius or needs to be in Broadmoor.  Some of the conversations in this film are so dead-end and nonsensical that they almost (almost) come full-circle and turn into a brilliant Kafka-esque satire on the banalities of modern discourse, each conversation simply a compendium of phatic utterances.
  3. In a way, this feels like a precursor to the era of Inbetweeners-style humour. Crucially, Vegas and Crook are total losers and their sex lives are shit, so they are playing underdogs.  But the tone of the film is so off, so wrong, that the fine-tuned charm of the Inbetweeners is instead bludgeoned to death.  Maybe Sex Lives of the Potato Men had to be slain on the altar of comedy for better things to come after it.
  4. Some scenes, concepts, dialogue in the film are genuinely disturbing.  And this irritates me.  Because I’ve watched Rome, Open City.  I’ve seen Fitzcarraldo.  I recently sat through the entirety of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.  I’ve watched the greats, kids.  And I can barely remember anything from any of them.  And I can remember loads from Sex Lives of the Potato Men.  In excruciating detail.  Like the scene pictured at the top of this article, where one character opens a door at an orgy and, in a break from the reality of the rest of the film, strolls through a neon-lit avenue of obscenities – ‘piss flaps’, ‘beef curtains’, even – and we’re talking the height of eroticism here – ‘fingering’.  Fingering.  The holy grail.  And my point here is that these neon signs are now forever burned into my mind’s eye. This film, in its shittiness, has made more of an impression on me than most of the greats.  And that has disturbing implications for art. Great art and bad art.  And how the void left by bad art is the thing that is left when the good art that you actually had to think about evaporates from your short term memory.  And if bad art leaves the strongest impression, then ad execs know, by extension, that if they throw enough shit at you, literally and metaphorically, at least some of it will stick.

Sandwiches, anyone?

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LFF 2015: Entertainment

by Ben Diamond

Entertainment (Alverson 2015, 110m)

When is a film not funny?  When its subject is a stand-up comedian.

Entertainment seems to owe a debt to Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon, both looking at the business of comedy.  But whereas there is some sort of prankish genius at work in the Andy Kaufman construct in the latter, it soon becomes apparent in Entertainment that there’s absolutely nothing funny whatsoever about its main character (played by Gregg Turkington, simply ‘The Comedian’ in the credits), who drives alone through the desert, performing terrible and offensive jokes to the few nonplussed stragglers in each new bar he reaches.  I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s brilliant book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, about his years toiling on the road, playing upstairs at pubs, misunderstood and underappreciated.  But at least in his book there is eventual redemption (success), and the confirmation that Lee really does possess some sort of comic genius that is just too sophisticated for the masses.  Here, although I desperately wanted some sort of an equivalent to a wink from Turkington, letting the film audience in on the joke, there was none.  Instead, there is just a slow-burn realisation that this lone figure is doomed to perform piss-poor comedy (if it can even be called that) for the rest of his life.  That he turns nasty when his audiences lose interest in the performances belies a lack of self-awareness, and gives the whole piece a razor-sharp edge.

The Comedian’s deranged onstage performances differ completely from his quiet demeanour offstage.  The set-up to his jokes often start with a pained and drawn-out “Whyyyyyy?”, almost as if he has been forced onstage against his own will as some Inferno-style punishment, questioning his own torment.  In his hotel rooms between gigs, he phones his wife and speaks to his daughter.  “Hello sweetie,” we often hear him say.  After a while one wonders if this family even exist.  It’s strange to watch a comedian at work and failing miserably.  It’s not as if he’s a misunderstood genuis – he’s just not funny.  And it’s not funny watching him fail, either.  And therein likes the horror.  This is a film so bleak, the comedy so pitch-black you can’t even see it, that when the credits roll you just close your eyes and take deep breaths until the house lights come up again.

The things The Comedian encounters as the film goes on become more and more surreal, extreme metaphors for his alienation and descent into madness.  Michael Cera, in an inspired piece of casting, completely against type, plays a desperate driver at a gas station with a buzz cut.  The effect is disorientating.  At one point The Comedian witnesses a woman giving bith by herself on the floor of a truck stop bathroom.  All his performances are mirrored by his support act, a young man who puts on makeup and clowns around silently, jumping on tables and pretending to masturbate, defecating in his own hat.  It’s a great and innocent (if equally shit) comedic counterpoint to Turkington’s abhorrent nastiness onstage.  The film is full of slow-burn moments of absolute existential horror.  I thought it was wonderful.

LFF 2015: Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen

by Ben Diamond

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (Kitano 2015, 125m)

Takeshi Kitano, perhaps best known in the UK for being the host of ’80s gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, but also known for having made some great ’90s films – Sonatine and Hana-bi – has returned with a light-hearted comedy in which old Yakuza member Ryuzo reunites with his old mob buddies to wreak havoc once more, and reminisce about the good old days, back when the Yakuza were respected by all, left alone by the police, and unencumbered by anti-corruption laws which have been put in place since the gang became inactive.  Kitano himself plays a police chief who occasionally watches on with a mask of inscrutability as his old Yakuza acquaintances make prats of themselves.  I often have a problem with directors inserting themselves into their own films (or other people’s films), especially in the case of Quentin Tarantino.  But whereas Tarantino is a nerd who should stay behind the camera, Kitano has that cult-cool about him that gives him an edge onscreen, even if he isn’t doing much.  Of course, it’s hard to tell if he delivers his lines well or not.  Perhaps a blessing in disguise when his films cross over to the West.

But fart gags are the esperanto of comedy, and translate across geocultural borders.  Hence, the film is laden with methane.  I don’t mind the heavy reliance on rectal gas, but the rest of the comedy is incredibly broad.  The camera often lingers on a sight gag or a gurning face too long, well after the penny drops with the audience.  Similarly, a lot of the political content seems completely unsubtle and appealing to our most basic sense of Japanese history, although admittedly there are some very funny moments with an old kamikaze pilot that still have bite.  I don’t quite know how the film managed to run past the two hour mark – the plot feels stretched, and at least half an hour could’ve been cut.  The genuinely funny gags are too sparse, and looking back, the plot was virtually nonexistant, a shaggy dog story for a series of set-pieces and pratfalls.  I like the idea of Kitano making a film which considers the anachronism of the Yakuza man in modern society.  It feels like he’s thinking about his own place in the world as he approaches his seventies.  It’s still a Kitano film, even if it looks like the Japanese equivalent of a Hangover or a Horrible Bosses-type outfit.  He successfully avoids giving the characters any sort of moral compass.  They are complete bastards.  That is funny and rings true.  But after a good start and a strong set-up, the film loses its way and never finds its way back, despite a few very strong scenes.  By the end it was long past its sell-by.

Ryuzo is still worth seeing for the odd moment of Kitano brilliance.  The inspired scene in a restaurant where Ryuzo and his buddy gamble on what customers who enter will order felt like a shake-up of Japan’s film history, a violent riposte to Ozu’s moments of tea-room calm, like his own school reunion scene in An Autumn Afternoon.  Kitano’s still got it – he might’ve mellowed, but we still get flashes of the old spirit.